The federal government defines a hostile work environment as a workplace in which an employee feels threatened or harassed by the words and actions of a coworker or manager.
This can include mental, physical, or sexual intimidation. It also includes the denial of promotions from supervisors and/or unnecessary or especially severe discipline.
A hostile work environment in the federal workplace can be even more harmful because of the tax dollars wasted on the loss of productivity that often results from a hostile work environment.
However, federal employees do have the option to follow legal avenues within the agency that are not specific to federal employees.
Workplace bullying is on the rise and can certainly create a hostile work environment. It can take the form of malicious gossip or insults, sexual harassment, or offensive comments.
While many kinds of unwanted action can generate a hostile work environment, in general, it is when someone in a workplace is involved in biased harassment against one or more employees.
The harassing person can be a supervisor, coworker, independent contractor or even a client.
Harassment is a form of employment discrimination that violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, (ADEA), and the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990, (ADA).
Under federal law, harassment by federal employees of other federal employees based on the following is prohibited:
Harassment by anyone in the workplace, even contractors, is not permitted by the federal government.
Workplace harassment can take two forms:
Harassment can be "quid pro quo,” which happens when employment decisions or treatment are based on submission to or rejection of unwelcome (typically sexual) conduct.
In terms of sexual harassment, it means that someone offers something work-related in exchange for a sexual favor.
Workplace harassment can also look like aggressive behavior based on one or more of the protected groups above that is so severe or persistent that it causes a hostile work environment.
It could also be if it leads to unfortunate employment decisions; for example, being fired or demoted.
However, there are some unpleasant instances that can happen at work that would not be considered harassment, such as irritations or offhand comments.
For example, if your supervisor doesn’t take your ideas to heart or if you have a coworker who slams doors, this would not necessarily be considered a hostile work environment.
Rather, illegal harassment would be so severe or persistent that it changes the terms of employment or hinders an employee’s ability to perform their work effectively.
First, you should try telling the person harassing you that their behavior is unwelcome and must stop. However, you should also tell your manager about the harassment when it begins in order to keep it from getting any worse.
When you speak with your harasser, explain how their behavior has affected your ability to perform your job and give specific examples.
Point out how their behavior has violated employment laws. This will give your argument legal backing and professionalism.
Federal employees have an advantage when it comes to addressing a hostile work environment as they have explicit paths within their agency that they are able to follow.
If speaking directly with the harassing coworker doesn’t help, you should report the problem to your supervisor. However, if your harasser is a manager, you should speak to HR or upper management about the problem.
When you report the problems you are having, present a copy of the documentation you have kept.
Also keep a record of the conversation you have with HR or upper management as evidence in case you need to file a formal complaint with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
When keeping records, be sure to give a description of every incident including the time, date, location, and names of each person involved. If you don’t keep a detailed record, you’ll have a hard time proving your case to your higher-ups, HR, and/or the EEOC.
If complaining to a manager or HR doesn’t help, you should contact an EEO counselor. You cannot file a formal complaint until you do this.
You have 45 days from the date the most recent incident occurred to contact an EEO counselor.
You can find the contact information for your agency’s EEO office posted in your workplace, as all federal workplaces are required to have it in plain view or provide it upon request.
When you speak to the EEO counselor, give them your account of the hostile work environment. Next, they will set up mediation with you and the harasser to talk about the problem and try to come to a resolution.
What happens next can depend on the severity of the behavior. The EEO counselor might recommend one or more of the following to the agency:
If the mediation doesn’t go the way you hoped it would, you can file a formal EEO complaint with your agency.
The agency will then launch an investigation into your claims and issue a decision within 180 days.
If you disagree with their decision, you can then ask for an appeal hearing with an EEOC Administrative Judge or you can file a federal lawsuit.
If you find yourself being retaliated against for filing a complaint or if you decide to take the case to federal court, you will almost certainly want to hire a good lawyer that is well-versed in federal employment law. A good attorney can also advise you through the counseling process.
The highly experienced federal employee attorneys at Melville Johnson, P.C. have been helping federal employees win their EEO cases for over 35 years.
Give us a call or fill out the form below to learn how we can help you alleviate the pain of a hostile work environment today.